Nonfiction: Mad, Bad and Difficult to Know: The Life of a Rebel Aristocrat

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NINETY-NINE GLIMPSES OF PRINCESS MARGARET
By Craig Brown
Illustrated. 423 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

Once upon a time, the queen’s younger sister delighted in telling lesser folk that her son’s first word was “chandelier.” Imperious, clever, cruel and unhappy, Princess Margaret is described by Craig Brown as “the one who wasn’t,” “the second-born, the also-ran.” King George VI himself pronounced the sober Elizabeth his pride and the mischievous Margaret his joy. When they were children, the less pretty, much steadier sister tended to mother Margaret; later on, Elizabeth learned to give her a wide berth; toward the end, before Margaret’s death in 2002, the princess had her pity.

As students of the crown (or viewers of “The Crown”) will know, the monarch may also have felt guilty about having put the kibosh on Margaret’s hopes of marrying the divorced Group Capt. Peter Townsend. Brown, however, sees more phoniness than fealty in the potential groom and emphasizes that neither party liked the idea of living without Margaret’s royal allowance. In fact, the biographer is pretty sure that for most of her life the only torch Margaret carried was a cigarette lighter.

Renunciation of Townsend led the princess toward what the world regarded as the ultimate rebound marriage, her union with Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer, social climber and early “metrosexual,” according to Brown. The soon-to-be minted Lord Snowdon was said by one of his girlfriends to have “wept on her bare breasts at the prospect of getting married to royalty.” Three years after the wedding, he “had grown restless,” and a few more beyond that he was “leaving nasty notes on her desk, including one headed ‘Twenty-Four Reasons Why I Hate You.’”

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Margaret gave as good as she got during their “acid rows,” but the marriage was doomed by Snowdon’s inability to satisfy one half of the princess’s two-stage central compulsion. First came her desire to appear rebellious and bohemian; marrying Tony was fine for that, since her artsy consort helped to assemble a showbizzy, swinging ’60s crowd. But then Tony wouldn’t cooperate with the second phase, during which Margaret required that nonroyals who’d just been trapped into committing lèse-majesté be swatted for flouting the prerogatives she actually treasured. Stories abound: Colin Tennant, a pre-Snowdon suitor, was permitted to engage in “heavy petting” but not to call her Margaret. After a long, relaxed chat, the actor Derek Jacobi found himself being told: “You don’t light my cigarette, dear. Oh no, you’re not that close.”

There would always be toadies (Peter Sellers gave his daughter’s pony to Margaret’s children), but also a lot more republican impatience as the decades passed. After hearing that she’d called him “an over-made-up tart,” Boy George replied: “I bring more money into this country than she does.” Those who genuinely liked her — Prince Philip, Gore Vidal — tended to be somewhat impossible themselves.

The last quarter century was mostly downhill. In the mid-1970s, Margaret took the much younger Roddy Llewellyn for a lover, dallying with him on the Caribbean island of Mustique and at a hippieish commune in Wiltshire. The press shouted about her neglect of royal duties, which she’d never performed with much gusto. Snowdon seized the chance to appear the victim, and in 1978 the queen’s sister, who hadn’t been allowed to marry a divorced man, ended up being divorced herself.

Brown, a longtime contributor to Private Eye magazine, is capable of witty concision, as when he characterizes the Queen Mother’s “ruthless contentment.” His “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret,” some of them Rashomonian, are mostly fast and entertaining. But more than a few could have been a single sentence, and a handful of counterfactual fantasies — Margaret running off with Picasso; Mr. and Mrs. Peter Townsend living not far from the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor — never gain altitude. Too much of the book, like so much of its subject’s life, is extraneous.

The author shrewdly suggests that Margaret, “most at home in the company of the camp, the cultured and the waspish,” probably didn’t realize “that such a high proportion of them kept diaries.” Brown scours those of Cecil Beaton, Noël Coward, James Lees-Milne and others, along with heaps of memoirs and collected letters, but his dense eight-page list of sources doesn’t seem to indicate any interviews he conducted himself. He divides royal biographers into “fawners and psychos,” and admits to a certain “delirium” of his own.

It isn’t a thirst for fairness that makes one bring a book like this to the beach, but here and there a reader may wish the author had given Margaret a smidgen more credit. Brown, for example, acknowledges but scarcely dwells on how the princess’ two children became “widely regarded as more accomplished and personable” than the queen’s own feckless, always-divorcing offspring. And yet, any account of Margaret’s existence will leave a sense of waste and ennui. Vidal found her “far too intelligent for her station in life,” and Lord St. John of Fawsley regretted the lack of “an outlet” for her cleverness. In this she resembled that specimen of minor American royalty, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, whose remarks were piercing but whose life often seemed beside the point. In 1984, the princess played herself in a radio drama devoted to the prevention of child abuse. “Margaret,” Brown reports, “sounds curiously flat and uninvolved, almost as though she can’t get to grips with her character.”

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